Twitter, Free Speech & Disinformation

Elon Musk's deal to buy Twitter comes with a promise to reduce censorship on the platform, raising questions about what his approach will mean for the "digital town square".

In response, various human rights groups have been quick to express concerns that a lack of moderation could lead to a rise in hate speech. Many Twitter users are also asking whether this means accounts suspended by the company - like that of ex-President Donald Trump - will be allowed back.

Indeed, it might turn out that Twitter's change of ownership means that  the social media platform will do even less to moderate extremism, fake news and disinformation. 

Twitter is unique. Its short 280 character limit on text and threading  promotes real-time conversations among thousands of people, which make it popular with celebrities, media personalities and politicians alike. Twitter’s ability to shape real-time discourse, as well as the ease with which data, including geotagged data which can be extracted has made it a powerful tool for researchers to analyse a variety of societal phenomena, ranging from public health to politics. 

“Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” Musk said in the same Twitter statement announcing the deal. "I also want to make Twitter better than ever by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans. Twitter has tremendous potential, I look forward to working with the company and the community of users to unlock it," he added.

There has been speculation over who and what will be allowed back on Twitter, including whether former US president Donald Trump will return to the platform. Australian lobby group Digital Rights Watch has expressed concern that while Musk claims the takeover is about free speech, it’s actually about power.

This deal has started a debate in the US about freedom of speech and the role of social media platforms in regulating the flow of information.

“Mr. Musk: free speech is wonderful, hate speech is unacceptable. Disinformation, misinformation and hate speech have NO PLACE on Twitter,” the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a US civil rights advocacy group, said in a statement. The group warned against permitting Trump back on the platform or allowing Twitter to become a “petri dish” for falsehoods. “Protecting our democracy is of utmost importance, especially as the midterm elections approach. Mr Musk: lives are at risk, and so is American democracy,” it added.

Emerson T. Brooking, a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Lab said “Musk has made no secret of his distaste for Twitter's efforts to curb misinformation and harmful content. Now that he has full control, I expect that many of these policies will be reversed. Many malicious actors are about to be given a new lease on life.” Brooking said Musk seems not to have given much thought to the challenge of foreign interference or “the complexities of terrorist and wartime content moderation. "When he finds himself responsible for such decisions, he will be in for a rude awakening,” he said.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights advocacy group, said in a statement, “Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter highlights the risks to human rights and personal safety when any single person has complete control over policies affecting almost 400 million users. “And in this case that person has repeatedly demonstrated that they do not understand the realities of platform policy at scale.” 

However, Musk might could also move to limit disinformation on Twitter. One idea is that of verifying the identities of all users, rather than just a few. Musk has also indicated his intention to combat twitter bots, or automated accounts that post rapidly and repeatedly in the guise of people.

There is also some reason to think that Musk’s takeover might actually help more users fight autocratic regimes. Musk recently donated dozens of Starlink terminals to Ukrainians to allow them to continue to post and access the Internet even as Russia attacked communications infrastructure. 

One of the consequences of the Musk's purchase is that it gives him access to the non-public and non-encrypted direct messages between users. This has beeen a controversial issue for Mark Zukerberg's Meta group, where Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram now share their different users' information.

Since being banned from Twitter, extremists have moved other to social media platforms like Telegram where there is less content moderation but also fewer followers. The prospect of regaining access to a mainstream platform that gives them considerably more reach has been welcomed. “I would rather be active on Twitter and dead irl than be banned from Twitter and alive,” white supremacist Nick Fuentes, who was banned from Twitter last year.

To understand Musk’s motivations and what lies next for social media platforms such as Twitter, it’s important to consider the giant and largely invisible online online advertising business involving multiple technologies wielded by ad networks, social media companies and publishers. Advertising is currently by far the the primary revenue source for Twitter. In contrast, Musk’s vision is to generate revenue for Twitter from subscriptions rather than advertising. Without having to worry about attracting and retaining advertisers, Twitter would have less pressure to focus on content moderation. 

Twitter’s own algorithmic bias bounty challenge concluded that there needs to be a community-led approach to building better algorithms. A new approach to the algorithms used to deliver content to users might produce very different results. A creative exercise developed by the MIT Media Lab asks middle schoolers to re-imagine the YouTube platform with ethics in mind.

There is a possibility that Musk to do this with Twitter, although his proposal to make the algorithms used open source and freely available would have an unintended consequence of making the platform much more vulnerable to malicious actors.

Regulators around the world are lining up to enforce rules on social networks and make them to take more responsibility for the content they carry, issuing steep fines for non-compliance on material that incites violence, or is abusive, or classifies as hate speech, among other things. 

It  is far too early to draw conclusions about Twitter's new direction or to predict how Twitter users will collectively respond. One thing is certain - it will produce a very active debate. For  every tweet welcoming Musk's ownership, there is another condemning it. 

DefenseOne:      BBC:   BBC:     AlJazeera:       USAToday:       Guardian:     The Conversation:   

Forbes:    Channel News Asia:      LA Times:   NAACP:    Like War

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